Friday, September 28, 2018

Fighting The Last War (Post-Traumatic Innovation)


One of the very first things I did when rediscovering RPGs was find Shock: The Social Science Fiction RPG. I think I was googling "Philip K Dick""RPG".

It was a storygame, I thought it was pretty neat. After a while later, playing more RPGs, learning more, I wrote about why Shock and the other interesting Indie games I was finding wouldn't really working for my group.

I continued to be interested in them and read them though, holding out hope there'd be something useful in one of them (despite seemingly entire indie game subculture trying to keep outsiders the fuck away). The free-form combat system in Burning Wheel looked cool? But in practice it just took too long and wasn't real different than D&D where you could just do what you wanted anyway. And actually playing Burning Wheel was mostly just funny. Dread had that questionnaire character sheet and the Jenga tower, but...nopeDungeon World was supposed to be a solution to every unnecessary complexity in D&D? Wah wahhhh

Anyway, point is: it is undeniable that these games were full of innovation. And equally undeniable that none of it was helpful. This was weird to me--I can usually find a useful mechanic in fucking anything.  Over and over it seems like the same issue: massive swaths of the systems were solutions to problems I don't just not have, but I've never even even seen in real-life games. And so much text about what you weren't supposed to do.

So much of the design space is based around avoiding pitfalls that don't seem to happen (or that were solved problems ages ago) that there's little left for genuine forward-looking ideas. It's somehow new but consistently not presenting new material? New but reactionary.

Someone's got a term for it, courtesy of Twitter. Somebody's slideshow:

The most obvious offender is the GUMSHOE system, which is explicit about existing only to solve a problem that shouldn't exist: "GUMSHOE exists to solve a problem that many people found with running Call of Cthulhu – one bad die roll can derail an adventure." --that's straight from the section called "Why This Game Exists". So while I'm grateful for Ken Hite's prose and research in Trail of Cthulhu, the system (a lot of the book) left me cold.

So, here's a small gallery of post-traumatic game design text

All I’m saying is, the PCs’ stories aren’t yours to write and they aren’t yours to plan. If you’ve GMed many other roleplaying games, this’ll be the hardest part of all: let go of “what’s going to happen”. Play the town. Play your NPCs. Leave “what’s going to happen” to what happens. 
-Vincent Baker, Dogs In The Vineyard, pg 91
What game was he playing? What game does he think we were playing?

It’s not, for instance, your agenda to make the players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them, or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking around). It’s not your job to put their characters in double-binds or dead ends, or to yank the rug out from under their feet. Go chasing after any of those, you’ll wind up with a boring game that makes Apocalypse World seem contrived, and you’ll be pre-deciding what happens by yourself, not playing to find out.
Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game’s fiction’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside. 
-Vincent Baker, Apocalypse World, pg 108
(Caps the authors. )
…stick with me for two last bits. First, likeability. This should be a person you can believe in, a power-set you like looking at, a problems profile you can sympathize with. Second, stay super basic – no fancy justifications, no attempt to get ahead of the point-costs, no special push for originality, no piling on multiple different skill or power-sets.
You may be tempted to write up a complicated text piece about the character’s origin. However, origin stories are not about how I got my powers, but about why our story starts here, referring to the immediate situation when the character is introduced. 
-Ron Edwards Champions Now Playtest document
How did originality bite you on the ass?
“Okay, so now that the monks are locked inside the tower, I set fire to it. That’ll teach them to look down their noses at me! Burn, monks, burn!”
“As soon as it’s my turn to guard the prisoner, when I’m sure the others are all asleep, I stride over to him and slit his throat.”
“I’m tired of taking guff from the gnome king. I have my heat shield cloak on, so the confined space of this throne room? One word: fireball!”

Ah, that classic moment of roleplaying dysfunction, when one person in the group decides it’s time to cross the line from lovable rogue to psychopathic scumbag. This classic move of the uncollaborative player either wrenches the storyline onto a grim sidetrack of consequences that fall on the entire group, or shreds the plausibility of your ongoing story.
-Robin Laws, here 

Don’t make the PCs look incompetent 
When a PC rolls a 1-3, things go badly, but it’s because the circumstances are dangerous or troublesome—not because the character is a buffoon. Even a PC with zero rating in an action isn’t a bumbling fool. Here’s a trick for this: start your description of the failure with a cool move by the PC, followed by “but,”and then the element in the situation that made things so challenging. “You aim a fierce right hook at his chin, but he’s quicker than he looked! He ducks under the blow and wrestles you up against the wall.” 
-John Harper, Blades In The Dark p 197 
and the Moby Dick of the genre...
Don’t Use This System 
That’s right. You heard what I said. Don’t use it. If you are rolling dice in the course of the game you have done something wrong. Or at least that is how I see it. But I admit that I am somewhat of a roleplaying purist. Telling a consensual story with players sitting around the table, all inputting their parts of the narrative is the most perfect game to me. It requires loads of imagination, insight, teamwork, a certain level of verbosity, sense of curiosity, and a hunger for knowledge—all attributes that are well suited to any aspect of life, not just the gaming table.Ok, now that we all feel good about ourselves, I will say it again: Don’t use this system. Dice and numbers just get in the way of good story. And that is what we are all after, deep down, isn’t it? A good story. We come to this game inspired by brilliant narratives and we want to participate. We want our chance to act in the story, to change things, to do it our way—we come to the game to get in on the action. The system should be subordinate to that desire, kept in your pocket as a back-up to your own good story. It should support that story and help it move along, not bog it down, and drag it in impossible circles. That is why you shouldn’t use this system, or any system for that matter.Let the story reign. My favorite nights around the table are the nights when we don’t roll any dice, the nights where all the hurdles are overcome with a little discussion, a little teamwork and a lot of roleplaying. Trust me, these nights are not just “sit around the campfire and talk about our adventure” nights. I have run whole rebellions without touching the dice. The inspiring words of a commander are far more important to the game and to the players than a roll of the dice.This system is the antithesis of that free form of storytelling. It is exacting, accurate and sometimes harsh. A well-placed roll of the dice will tell you unequivocally if you have succeeded or failed—if you survive or if you are destined to bleed out your life staring at the twilit sky. This system will inject such a fierce drama into the game that players might come to enjoy it. They might look forward to rolling the dice—to seeing their ideas accurately represented in those little cubes. And we wouldn’t want that! We wouldn’t want the system to actively support the characters and their development. We wouldn’t want all this to make sense, now, would we? So, like I said, don’t use this system. 
-Luke Crane, Burning Wheel Page 230
And, no, the irony of this title for this blog post isn't lost on me. But keep the term, it might come in handy.

Now back to writing 258 super-powers....
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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Force Multiplier

You may be sick of hearing about the graphic design prowess of Mr Shawn Cheng (hire him) but this is several thousand orders of magnitude better than your blue sky projection of what you want to happen when you hand a stack of paintings and drawings and stats over to your graphic designer.

It took me 5 minutes to figure out where that little purple guy on the left came from.

Anyway, the bar's going up, just letting everyone know.
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Monday, September 24, 2018

New superhero game, cool dice tower, Lamarckian Orcs, more


-Art above by Richard A Kirk who I think you should check out if you want an alternate Fiend Folio

-Zak, why so few updates? Because I'm writing 3 RPG things at once: Edits for Demon City based on playtest feedback and going back and forth with the graphic designer, a secret project for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and a brand new superhero RPG with a new system kinda based on the Demon City system tentatively called I Am The Weapon. If you got questions about it, ask in the comments. Plus waiting for James to get back to me about Violence in the Nypharium.


-This is the only dice tower I have ever seen that made the idea seem worth the table real estate. And it's home-made. 3d printed plus a soda bottle I think.

-At Gen Con, because there's usually a lot of people, I usually run an informal player-vs-player D&D game (and jesus is it fun), and Michael Pfaff (player in the last one) has pretty well laid out here how I run it.

-Looking for info on how Red & Pleasant Land actually plays? Here's another campaign diary.

-Also, a detailed video review of Red & Pleasant. She talks slow if your first language isn't english.

-Podcast interviews! Many interviews on many topics, surprisingly few repeated things:
-Speaking of, James Raggi has gotten better and better at being interviewed over the years and this is a wonderfully cogent one he just did. Really speaks to why I love working with him and you should enjoy it now while it lasts.

-I guess I might be kinda sheltered since most people I know who are professional writers of any kind read a lot or were people I met while reading but I was...shocked is the wrong word...I was surprised my suspicions confirmed on levels I didn't know were possible by this question from a grown up RPG writer on twitter.

-OSR dude Chance Phillips is 15 years old and is on his third successful RPG kickstarter kind of blown away by that. He also won Lamentations of the Flame Princess' Brutal Youth contest. The world is kind of a great place, in its way.

-A hour of spooky organ music seems like a useful thing to have at a game table for like Death Frost Doom or something.

-There are job openings on the Warhammer team.

-Someone started a Demon City subreddit, which is weird since the game's not out yet but I'm not complaining.

-David McGrogan, author of Yoon-Suin and maybe the best world-builder in the OSR? has some notes up on a new thing. From what I said on Google +:
Aside from just sounding like it'll be an interesting project, I like how the factions work. The tree is undeniably there and has every quality the different factions claim it does, but the different ones care about different parts of it.That seems to be a metaphor with a lot of legs in terms of fantasy worldbuilding, which usually goes the other way and emphasizes many gods and each god having one set of attributes. Or which hides this structures under a more normalizing Christianity or equivalent.
-His take on Lamarckian orcs was also next-level.

-Comments on the last post have been pretty interesting. Some good, some among the most insane you'll ever find on the RPG internet.

-More Demon City designs from Shawn Cheng coming in. His layouts are such a force multiplier, every artist should have somebody like him on their side:




Monday, September 17, 2018

A Sexual Fantasy

I would like:

All of the online game people who get excited about Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the other DIY RPG work it inspired with all its weirdness and body horror and transgression and also get excited about the work of creators from other game scenes including storygames and the indie RPG scene and the critical voices from that scene to have a frank conversation about what is and isn't acceptable representation of sexuality in games. (I would say include the mainstream RPG scene but they ignore such things).

I would like this discussion to be in-depth, so that clear lines are understood and real consensus is reached (these conversations are possible: it is not so long ago pieces of simple philosophical principles like "only design a game you want to play" was obscure, and conversation clarified it) or, if not, the basic assumptions about human nature that underlie these divergent beliefs that make consensus impossible are laid bare.

I have no problem being left entirely out of this conversation so long as it is actually honest and in-depth and more thorough than before.

And, most importantly and above all---when it is done, I would like everyone who has what this conversation then understands as a morally restrictive and puritanical view of sex to be treated with the same righteous, joyous, constantly-advertised call-them-out-on-sight contempt as we more-or-less have consensus-agreed to treat any other toxic right-wing voice and anyone who supports them. I would like the puritan to be treated same as we might treat an open anti-semite (speaking as a Jew).

I would, in short, like it such views were treated as if they are harmful and a sign of being basically evil, because they are, rather than to be continued to be treated as some quaint anachronism you can just ignore.

Failing that, I'd like to know why it seems impossible to do that or have that conversation. And, quite likely, I suspect all the sex workers who have come to this table and played here over the years would like to know too.

-Z
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Monday, September 10, 2018

Philosophy, Branding, Activism, Progress, Debate & The Future of Games

The Nice And True Thing

The other day on some social media, a popular author wrote a nice and true thing.

They were talking about some piece of entertainment for young people and noting--accurately and nobly--that it had casually inserted support for a progressive point of view in it. To be clear:
  • It was good that the piece of media did this
  • They deserve recognition for having done it
  • It was worth pointing out
  • I believe they pointed it out wholly sincerely
  • I believe this was something a big part of the commenter's audience probably needed to hear
...and the feeling I felt reading it was personal exhaustion. Nothing political, just wugh, meh, click.

Because despite all that, it's not a conversation I'd have with anyone I know irl--nor do I think it's a conversation the person who wrote it would have with anyone they chose to hang out with in real life. It would be really boring: Do you approve the Obviously Progressive Thing That Everyone We Hang Out With Would Approve Of? Yes, I do.

Nobody here at D&D With Porn Stars, for instance, sits around talking to each other about how sex work is work or that it'd be nice to be able to cam and then deposit using a bank like normal people. We know that. We say that publicly if we feel there's some important reason to point it out, but it's not a conversation we need to have, to each other, or even to our friends.

I've met many of you reading this. Few of you need to be convinced the president's immigration policies are terrible. It's assumed and known. Talking about it would be like complaining it's raining: we all wish it would stop, that's a boring-ass conversation. We're smart people with more to contribute than trading what is, in our own sphere, universally accepted wisdom.

But on social media? Day in, day out: RAIN IS BAD. IT SHOULD STOP. 30k Likes.

The author of the opinion I began this blog entry with wasn't starting a conversation that interested them, they were broadcasting a message. A cynical take would be this was branding ("performatively woke" in one alignment tongue, "virtue signalling" in another) a less cynical take would be that it's activism (that is: trying to enact large-scale change by spreading a message).


"Messaging"

Activism is an unalloyed good, branding is a bit more suspicious, but no matter what else they are, both branding and activism are a commitment to repeat yourself.

...and, simply as a person writing blog entries, that is not something that holds my interest.

I'm not saying they're not worth doing, just that--as activities per se--they're no fun.

Saying "pay your fucking freelancers a fucking living wage and you'll get better content" (which you will) isn't fun. Going "Maze of the Blue Medusa is back in print!" (which it is) isn't fun. 

These things have to be done once in a while, but they aren't why I started this blog. And reading and trading messages like this isn't the main reason I read these blogs or any social media. I've started to block people who do nothing else, not because I disagree with them (I don't) and not even because the messages they're broadcasting make me think about things I'd rather not (they don't), but just because: I'm here for conversation and these kinds of messages aren't part of an interesting conversation--even if they're part of an important one.


The Philosophical Process

So why do I do this?

I presume most of you know this, but I'll recap to be clear as possible.

Other than simply trading useful content (which is a lot of what we all try to do here on the blogs) I basically believe in what we might call the philosophical process, and I believe it can makes play experiences (including mine) better.

The process is this:

Somebody makes a claim about how games work.

Somebody else makes a contradictory claim.

They ask questions and present evidence to prove their claims, one or both are proven wrong.

If both participants do not stop and pursue the conversation back to their different opening assumptions, both learn if either position is true* and everyone watching also learns.

The sum total of knowledge in the community is increased, it spreads, everyone learns something, and new and better ideas can be built on top of the assumption that this thing has been settled.

(*or at least as true as we can tell right now)

For example, ideally:

Socrates: "Tomb of Horrors is unbeatable."

Plato: "No it isn't, I beat it in '82, here's the actual play report. Here's three more from other people. Do you think I'm lying or fabricated these documents?"

Socrates: "No. I guess I was wrong. I'm sorry. Tomb of Horrors is beatable, just really hard."

Everyone intelligent watching: "Ah, we see: Tomb of Horrors is beatable, just really hard."

Kotaku, i09, Geek & Sundry, Matt Mercer, WOTC, all other media sources: "Tomb of Horrors is beatable, just really hard."

The first thing any third party new to RPGs and eager for information Googles: "Tomb of Horrors is beatable, just really hard."

...and from then on, if anyone ever says Tomb of Horrors is unbeatable and doesn't acknowledge the error, they are immediately treated as if they just said camels were reptiles and must then either admit their error or be resigned to a life of never being trusted ever by anyone and as soon as their screen-name comes up people just block and move on. Constantly, forever, in perpetuity, unless Plato is proved to have forged his evidence.

And, most importantly, people considering buying Tomb or playing Tomb or creating something in line with its principles have real information to guide them.

The goal is never to persuade. The goal is to provide all the information to anyone present who is intelligent enough to make decisions based on information.

This is the process working. This process, though imperfectly, has worked often in the past--many gibberish ideas have been put to rest in the last ten years. RPGs apparently can be a spectator sport, 5th edition wasn't a flaming commercial wreck, you can make good money creating independent RPG products, sexy girls really do play D&D (one works at WOTC now), more than one prominent gamer-puritan is guilty of sexual misconduct, Tomb of Horrors is beatable, nobody's found good reason not to use split-column tables, you can fit several days' adventure comfortably on a page, etc. These things are facts, not opinions.

Evidence has been presented, refutation has not been forthcoming, the information has spread, peoples' behavior has changed in response to them. Like any engineering knowledge: new things can be built because we now know these are facts. 

Progress happens when what was previously in dispute is settled and things can be created knowing this or that piece of intellectual machinery is solid, will hum, the motor will go. Then you make the next thing.

It's easy to dunk on that as a "debate club" style conversation, but it's also impossible to defend the alternatives.

There are reasons not to have conversations about your game ideas in dedicated gamer-spaces that work like this, but none of them are good reasons:
  • People are just publicly venting (at the expense of authors, gamers, products and anyone googling to help them run a game)
  • People want to build community around their opinion more than they want it to be accurate (flat earth societies)
  • People have mental health issues and so just need to talk shit (and don't have a support system outside the online game community)
  • Ok, this is possibly a good reason: They're being funny (though admit it's in front of an audience where there's almost no genuine social reward for being funny--or a lot smaller social reward than if they just went the fuck outside and were funny in front of actual present people).
Most public game conversations in the online game space about what you think is true should work the way I described above. It should be philosophical. It should be directed toward solving the problem posed by opposing ideas. And if that means a weeks-long knock-down drag-out fight, have that fight, if that means you throw up your hands and go "Well we don't have enough information to know who's right" then you do that. Otherwise: seriously ask yourself why you bothered to write anything at all. What were hoping to get out of it? If nothing? Go do something else, don't be an internet addict. Improve your fucking life. There are soooo many more fun things to do with your free time.

If it's worth logging on, putting in your password, showing up and saying a thing in public about any game--no matter how silly the game (and, yes, this is a big if)--it's worth doing everything possible to be sure the thing you said is true.

(Note I'm not talking about genuinely idle conversation--like "Yo, do you think Drizz't is bi?"--I mean the far more common kind of conversation: the one where someone claims to know how a game or a part of a game or a kind of game works.)

Either you care about the dumb game thing you said or you don't. If you cared enough to write that owlbears are racist, then you can't jump ship and claim you don't care it's just elfgames when someone questions it. That doesn't help anyone and just adds noise other people have to filter out when they need actual information--it makes their life harder. It's basically spamming on behalf of a nonexistent product. Literally nothing improves, and some things get worse.

Some FAQs pop up in the comments below. If you're like "But what about..." check them.


Pro-Noise

Needless to say, the idea I've outlined above is immensely unpopular--almost as unpopular as the results of it are popular (many fine independent products that exist in their present form due to things learned during straightforward debate, nothing good's ever come out of the other model, which is:

Plato: "Here is my essay where I say Tomb of Horrors is beatable"

Socrates: "Here is my essay claiming Tomb of Horror is unbeatable"

Plato: "B...but you ignored all the evidence I put forward in mine?"

Socrates: "I don't have to debate you, you're not my dad!"

Hereabouts Dog Corpse Libertarianism tends to rear its head:

"You can't make me talk in a useful way!"

"No, and I can't tell you not to fuck a dog corpse on a public sidewalk either, but I can say it doesn't get you anywhere."

Most places tolerate noise and misinformation more than they should. On forums it's for the comfort of those whose urge to hang out there unhealthily transcends their urge to use hanging out there to collect anything they might use in a game (including mods, who want to hang out there so much they do real work for free)-- but, more importantly, because two decades of internet and two years of ascendant fascism have gotten everyone used to the idea that it's hip, noble, and activist to avoid debates.

Originally the idea was about avoiding debates with people whose starting premises were openly opposed to your existence (I, too, see no point in debating someone who wants me in an oven) but we all know there's literally nothing anyone doesn't like that can't, at a stretch, be characterized as Naziism--especially in an environment with no debate--which is a Get Out Of Jail Free card for people who don't actually have any reasons for saying what they say. I don't have (huf) to debate you.

While I will briefly note that debate-avoiders' much-cited boogiemen--trolls and right-wing lunatics--are very easy to send packing in debate (they jump the rails into personal attacks or failing to answer questions immediately, invalidating the rest) that's not my point here today.

My point is just: People avoiding debate has consequences. And the consequence is: the work gets boring and worse. The messages become repetitive--the messages become messaging, the only goals can be maintaining an achieved level of theoretical perfection--incarnating known values that are supposedly shared, rather than applying acquired collective wisdom to new problems. The stupid are attracted (the messages are easy to parrot) and the intelligent are repulsed (nothing of value is at stake, nothing can be resolved, no new information is being generated, no new action can be taken).

In other words, if people don't kick the tires, any discussion of ideas is just reducible to activism or branding. One-way communication. The supposedly wise educate the supposedly ignorant and the best they can hope for is to clone themselves.

And before I just go "Fuck it" and leave everyone to these consequences, I figured I'd make sure I laid out my case for not letting that happen as clearly as possible.

Have conversations. Have them until there is no possible question left to answer. And if people won't do that: treat them like they're in the way. Because they are. Do something about them. Otherwise this amazing proliferation of people being creative for fun and occasionally profit will disappear.
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